The Ford Ka did not live up to launch expectations, but second hand it's got a lot to offer.
CHEEKY, RADICAL and innovative. The legendary Mini will be 40 years old this year, and then it will gracefully retire to be replaced by something larger and more expensive. So who is the quintessential city car's spiritual successor?

Well, there is a sprightly not-quite three-year-old in the radical shape of the Ford Ka. It is not only the oddest looking car on the road; like the Mini it is just as much fun to drive, easy to own and as a used buy is one of the best value tiddlers around.

There is more to the Ka than meets the eye, which is a good thing, because not everyone thinks it is very pretty. Design students might rave about the styling, motoring journalists can prattle on about how brave it is, but Mr and Mrs Miggins going to Tesco for the weekly shop may not wish to be the centre of attention as they slot-park. The rear view is particularly unfortunate - rather bow-wheeled.

Kas may be a much more common sight now, but the poor sales are attributable to the design. Another reason the Ka was slow to catch on concerned the pricing. It has never been a cheap car, starting at pounds 7,300.

When launched, Ford said it was intended for people who were downsizing from larger vehicles and wouldn't mind paying a premium for that. They were wrong, but they were right about the diminutive vehicle feeling like something much more grown up. The ride is superb, and the handling is agile and responsive. It is actually fun to drive. Unfortunately it is also slow.

The 1.3 engine is old technology which can be traced back to 1970s Fords; however it has been given a new lease of life, being reworked to behave in a smooth, refined manner.

The bottom line is that the Ford Ka has been built in large numbers in Spain and has not been a huge success. As the quintessential hire car, it is bought in bulk by fleets and then sold off after six months at auctions at knock-down prices. So what are you looking at? The basic Ka was launched in September 1996 with blue-painted plastic bumpers, tinted glass, radio/cassette and, most important of all, a driver's airbag.

Insurance is just group 2E. The Ka2 has power steering, central locking, driver's seat height-adjustment, front seat stowage nets, passenger seat release handle, rear head restraints and electric front windows. Then in June 1997 came the Ka3, with air conditioning, alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and gear knob, plus a CD player. At the same time, power steering was standardised on the basic Ka.

Prices start at pounds 8,000 for the Ka3, mainly from dealers. T-registered examples are around pounds 6,750 with delivery mileage. pounds 5,000 buys a tidy two- year old Ka with power steering. pounds 4,000 for a high-mile, almost three- year-old Ka in the classifieds. Auction prices and deals within the trade can make them even lower.

Problems? Not too many. The engine is very well proven and should not give problems. Sometimes a ticking noise can be heard, but that is the oil pump doing its job. If you can hear that noise at speed though, there could be a more serious problem. Build quality is patchy - especially ex-loan and hire cars, which can be shabby. Look carefully around the panels, which are rather thin, for parking damage and scuffs.

It's a difficult car to put right quickly, so a bodge job should be obvious. The paintwork is not that brilliant and seems to chip quickly. Also check out the boot lid on the bottom right-hand side, because sometimes it does not get painted. A service history would not be unreasonable, especially as the car is so young. Because Kas can do very low mileages, or cover lots of stop- start journeys, proper servicing and maintenance is essential.

Once you start shopping for Kas it is hard to stop. There seems to be so many around. Just a quick trawl through east London throws up some P-registered Kas at R&L Stevens, prices starting at pounds 5,350.

The supermarkets are where some of the best bargains can be found. In Barnsley, at a place called the Car Depot, I'm looking at three basic models, all registered at the same time and all with similar 15,000 mileages and a pounds 5,595 asking price. It is just a matter of whether I want a Burgundy, Cuirass, or Currant Red one. At these places they make it all so easy: pounds 99 down, then pounds 20 a week. Motorpoint in Derby go even better, with prices starting at pounds 4,999 for R-plated examples. But search among the classifieds and it is easy to find a highly equipped Ka3s; that means air conditioning, alloys and a CD player. The 1998 Ka had covered just 7,000 miles and was offered at pounds 6,995.

Whatever you may think about the Ford Ka, you can't ignore it. It is comfortable, stylish, fun to drive and, above all, cheap to buy. Almost the perfect small used car.

R &L Stevens (01708 761778); The Car Depot (01226 733353); Motorpoint (01332 347357)